WASHINGTON, D.C. – Many history buffs know the story of Harriet Tubman, the former slave from Dorchester County, who escaped to freedom and later helped other slaves accomplish the same.
But not everyone knows Tubman’s lesser known life chapters. The “Moses of Her People” also became a Union spy and scout during the Civil War, guerilla operative for the Union Army, and even a nurse who dispensed herbal remedies to soldiers who were dying from infection and disease.
The desire to learn more about the lesser known facets of Tubman’s life was underscored during a dance theatre adaptation called ‘Harriet and the Underground,’ held at the historic Warner Theatre in Washington, D.C. on July 8.
More than 100 students from Forestville-based Bishop McNamara High School (BMHS) performed an original creation celebrating Tubman’s life. Nia Hayes, a rising senior who has danced since the age of three, played Tubman in the show, which was produced by John Baltimore of Winback Productions Llc. Nia delivered a winning performance while setting the tone for other members of BMHS’s African Music and Dance Troupe called “Sankofa” to dazzle the audience with African and modern dance, live music and drumming, as well as cutting-edge technology. State-of-the-art, 3-D animated scenic projections “put the audience directly in the scene.” The element added depth to the presentation of Tubman’s work as an abolitionist, as well as the larger subject of the anti-slavery movement.
Victor Bah is BMHS’s artistic director and is a native of Ghana, West Africa. He provided behind-the-scenes information about ‘Harriet and the Underground.’
“My philosophy for what we do with these exciting productions centers around teaching and telling the world’s most important stories, both in history and literature, through dance theatre,” Bah said. “The process to create today’s production started many months ago. I have taken some artistic liberties on how to tell this story. Most importantly, you will see (Tubman’s) personality traits of faithfulness, strength, persistence, her sense of justice and selflessness all portrayed as dance characters called The Will of Steel. These dancers join Harriet on stage when the need to summon her inner strengths arises. Significant research went into this production and I’ve strived for great historical accuracy.”
In addition to these elements, much of the theatre adaptation featured high-energy African dance movements, which led the audience to clap and cheer from scene to scene throughout the production.
Michelle Wright from Waldorf remarked that her great-niece, Morgan Ross, who was in the production, would never forget being a part of “Harriet and the Underground,” nor her chance to perform at the Warner Theatre. Wright said dance is Morgan’s happy place.
“I wonder how kids can remember all of the dances, and their stamina is amazing,” Wrights said.
Some attendees like Wright had previously seen a performance of ‘Harriet and the Underground.’ However, many remarked they had not seen the students perform ‘quite like this.’
Attention-grabbing dance and descriptive words linked everything from the slave’s plight of being taken to an unknown destination, leading to the loss of relationships, to the pain of becoming human cargo, Tubman’s faith in god, and honoring the resilience of slaves.
Michelle Hill, another “Harriet and the Underground” attendee, said she thought the production was fascinating and the choreography was excellent. The Alexandria, Va., resident added that it was a mature subject for young people to present to the audience, while telling the story through music and dance. She noted that students shared their history and understood it.
“I thought it was a real rich performance offering a deeper appreciation for (Tubman),” Hill said.
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